Legendary Lovers: Cecil Beaton and Greta Garbo

Continuing our Valentine love fest, we explore the tumultuous affair of the Hollywood star and the English photographer.

BY Christopher Harrity

February 11 2014 8:00 AM ET


Candid images of Garbo and Beaton in London and New York

Cecil Beaton was the multitalented British dandy of the society set from the '20s to the mod '60s. Would his friends and male lovers have identified him as bi? Possibly not, but times have changed, and we can view Beaton's obsessions with the great female beauties of the time as what they were: manifestation of his bisexuality.

Garbo, the famously private screen goddess, had perhaps the most photogenic face of any decade. She was involved in a notoriously on again-off again relationship with the womanizer Mercedes de Acosta (pictured at right). De Acosta was also involved over the years with Isadora Duncan, Marlene Dietrich, and Eva Le Gallienne. Perhaps the devotion Garbo received from Beaton was a safe harbor during her continuing affair with de Acosta.

Two of the interesting books documenting the complex relationship between the two creative powerhouses: Greta and Cecil by Diana Souhami and Loving Garbo: The Story of Greta Garbo, Cecil Beaton and Mercedes de Acosta by Hugo Vickers. Vickers has also worked on a collection of wonderful books on Beaton, including editing Beaton's prolific diaries.

After a chance meeting in Hollywood in the early '30s that was punctuated with an flirtation, the besotted Beaton angled his way back into her life 15 years later like a lover obsessed. For Garbo, it was a fling with a handsome and devoted admirer, for Beaton it was something a little more possessive. Beaton worshipped her perfect beauty and was entranced by her mystique. The more unobtainable she became, the more he clung to her.

Eventually his objectification of Garbo became the fatal flaw that ended the affair. Beaton's book The Happy Years, published in 1972 and which was the third volume of his diaries, spelled out in hoary detail the minutia of his affair with Garbo, giving the world a glimpse into her ferociously protected private  life. She ended their relationship.

Beaton wanted to marry Garbo. She trusted him enough to make him one of the few people allowed to photograph her after her screen career ended. Ultimately, it was a love triangle, with the third partner being the camera. 

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